Touring the Gutsy and Green PostGreen Homes in Philadelphia

PostGreen Homes in Philadelphia

Lloyd Alter

I have always been a fan of Postgreen Homes of Philadelphia, and the work of Interface Studio Architects,(ISA) giving them the Best of Green Award two years ago, calling it " tough, gritty work in tough, gritty neighbourhoods, which is exactly where the important work will be done." Their first project was the 100K house, built for less than $100 per square foot yet achieving LEED Platinum. The strategy:

Wherever possible we reduced complexity and finish level until we had a very clean, modern, simple home. Then we focused on those areas of green building where we saw the most value . . . location, site and energy efficiency.

The sites

credit: Port Fishington

I was in Philadelphia for the Making Space symposium and spent Saturday afternoon touring projects with Postgreen partner Chad Ludeman. They were all within a few minutes of each other, in an area he calls Port Fishington. It has a lot going for it: an elevated rail transit link minutes away and good schools. Yet it is also full of empty lots, missing teeth, simple boxy handyman's specials everywhere. Chad says that when they started here you could get an empty lot for $ 5,000, and there are thousands of them. you can see the urban pattern in the photo above.

Skinny Project

credit: Lloyd Alter

It is all about keeping it simple, small and boxy, and as partner Nic Darling put so eloquently, by not "polishing a turd."

OK, so it's a bit harsh. Turd is, maybe, an unnecessarily rude word to use to describe what are often pretty nice homes, but the concept is sound. Most of the builders and developers reporting high premiums for pursuing LEED are still trying to build the exact same home they have always built. They are simply adding features to make that same house energy efficient, healthy and sustainable. This addition gets expensive.... So, they polish the turd. Rather than redesign the house that has been successful for them in the past, they add solar panels, geothermal systems, high end interior fixtures, extra insulation and other green features. The house gets greener. It gets certified, but it also increases significantly in cost. Since the features are add-ons and extras, the price rises as each one is tacked on.

They do polish the building, however; the project has colorful silk screen printing on the exterior.

2.5 Beta

credit: Lloyd Alter

"An additional half story of awesome."- a McMansion of a house at 2,100 square feet on a massive 20' by 56' lot and a base cost of a shocking $ 325,000. NOT. Development is tough, risky and expensive, and usually developers need to tie up with somebody with a lot of money. The banks are tight and the mezzanine lenders (the expensive guys who bridge between what the banks will lend, what you need to build and what you actually have) take a big part of the project. They want personal guarantees; as developer Jared Della Valle noted at the Making Space symposium, they can take everything but your kids. PostGreen started small, using the revenue from the sale of a personal residence to build the first project, selling it and moving on to the next. You don't get as big and you don't get as rich, but you can sleep at night.

First Steel

credit: Lloyd Alter

I met Chad next to his First Steel project; he lives two doors away in an old house that he is renovating around his family. It's a bit bigger; " This project also marks the first time we have built a true three story home which means those of you wishing for more beds and baths need wish no more." Looking at the house next door, you realize that the boxiness is part of the neighbourhood character, it is the way things have always been built here.

First Steel Detail

credit: Lloyd Alter

You can see how ISA combines simple materials and colours. Triple glazed fiberglass windows are expensive, so you don't fill the wall with them like people do with vinyl. Yet the interiors are full of light and air.

First Steel Owner

credit: Lloyd Alter

I loved the purple flowers on the chain link fence surrounding the neighboring empty lot.

Avant Garage

credit: Lloyd Alter

Avant Garage is their latest project in the area, with four two-storey townhouses on top of a tandem garage.

Avant Garage Interior

credit: Lloyd Alter

The interiors are straightforward, clean and modern.

Avant Garage Roof

credit: Lloyd Alter

From the patio on the green roof you can see downtown Philadelphia. The white on the inside of the parapet wall is an expensive welded roof membrane; again, they have not done the cheapest but went for low maintenance.

Avant Garage Label

credit: Lloyd Alter

Here is the thing that blows me away: $369K for a house with a garage and R-44 walls and an R-63 roof that operates for $69 per month, where you can walk to decent schools and a major transit line. This is the definition of green building for me: a simple design on a recycled urban lot without a lot of gizmo green. This is what people should be building, barns.

ISA Townhouses

credit: Lloyd Alter

Postgreen may have been the pioneers, but others have caught on and are building bigger, more elaborate projects like this one, also by ISA. The area is hot now, and lots cost as much as ten times more than they did when Chad and Nic started.

In the Area

credit: Lloyd Alter

The newer houses are bigger and more elaborate and more expensive, and Postgreen is beginning to look in other parts of town; they are being priced out of the market.

Chad and his Parklet

credit: Chad Ludeman

It is a shame, because they are part of this community, doing more than just building houses. I was impressed how Chad said hello to and seemed to know every person on the street. He built this parklet for the ice cream parlor and pizzeria on the local main street, which is following the trends and getting upgraded. Restaurants are moving in and facades are getting fixed. There are still a lot of missing teeth, but you can feel that something is happening here. We don't need more suburban sprawl, even though all the builders and economists are getting all excited about an uptick that will put people back to work building more of it. We don't need more 40 and 80 storey condo towers, even though the David Owens and Ed Glaesers keep saying they are green. We need more developers like Chad Ludeman and Nic Darling of Postgreen, and more architects like Brian Phillips of ISA, creating gutsy green affordable homes and rebuilding neighbourhoods. That is the future of green housing.